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Diplomats: Syria to Block IAEA From Probing Suspected Nuclear Sites

Syria has told fellow Arab countries that it will not permit an International Atomic Energy Agency probe to extend beyond a site bombed by Israel, despite agency interest in three other suspect locations, diplomats have told The Associated Press.

The agency's main focus on its planned June 22-24 visit to Syria is a building in the country's remote eastern desert that was destroyed in September by Israeli jets.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei announced Monday that Syria had agreed to an agency check of U.S. assertions that the target was a plutonium-producing reactor that was near completion, and thus at the stage where it could generate the fissile material for nuclear arms.

But the agency is also interested in following up on information that Syria may have three other undeclared atomic facilities. Diplomats and a nuclear expert told the AP Monday that at least one of the sites may have equipment that can reprocess nuclear material into the fissile core of warheads.

One of the diplomats said the IAEA was following up on a U.S. intelligence-based tip but emphasized the agency had not seen the intelligence itself. The nuclear expert said two of the military sites were operational and one was under construction. He and the diplomats asked for anonymity because their information was confidential.

On Tuesday, a senior diplomat familiar with the planned IAEA Syria trip told the AP that expectations were that Syria would gradually warm to the idea of giving agency experts access to those three sites, as well as the bombed Al Kibar facility.

But two other diplomats briefed on the Syrian stance said outside a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board that a senior official from Damascus ruled that out during a meeting with chief delegates of the 10 Arab nations accredited to the IAEA.

The diplomats said Syrian atomic energy chief Ibrahim Othman told the Arab delegates that his country could not open secret military sites to outside perusal as long as Syria and Israel remained technically in a state of war.

After fighting three wars and clashing in Lebanon, Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose last round of peace talks collapsed eight years ago. Both countries recently confirmed that they are holding peace talks through Turkish mediators.

As well, they said, Othman expressed fear that too much openness on Syria's part would encourage the U.S. to push for years of relentless international scrutiny of the kind Iran's nuclear program is now undergoing, despite Tehran's assertions its aims are purely peaceful.

After-hours calls to the Syrian Mission to the IAEA in Vienna for comment went unanswered.

Neither the U.S. nor Israel told the IAEA about the bombed site until late April, about a year after they obtained what they considered decisive intelligence: dozens of photographs from a handheld camera of the inside and outside of the compound.

Since then, Syria had not reacted to repeated agency requests for a visit to check out the allegations. Satellite photos appear to show construction crews using the interval to erect another structure over the site — a move that heightened suspicions of a possible cover-up.

Pressure on Syria to respond positively mounted with the approach of the latest meeting of the IAEA board that opened Monday.

In announcing the Syrian visit to the board, ElBaradei repeated his criticism of Israel and the U.S., taking Washington to task for waiting so long to brief him on its suspicions, and Jerusalem for its airstrike.

Diplomats have recently suggested that the Americans may have waited even longer, telling the AP that Washington may have had indications of Syrian plans more than five years ago. They demanded anonymity because their information was confidential.

The invitation signaled the start of an international fact check of U.S. and Israeli assertions that Damascus had tried to build a plutonium-producing facility under the radar of the international community.

Syrian President Bashar Assad denied once again that his country has a secret nuclear program in interviews appearing Tuesday in United Arab Emirates newspapers.

Israel has never officially confirmed September's air strike on the Al Kibar site, though it has not disputed the foreign reports, or U.S. government comments, on the incident.